By Sid Lowe
March 14, 2012

Lionel Messi scored five goals in a single game last week, becoming the first player in the Champions League ever to do so. Most were impressed; some were not. Against Bayer Leverkusen, they said: So what? It is a familiar argument -- and one that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in particular have been forced to confront time and time again. Between them, they have racked up astonishing goal scoring figures, breaking records at every turn -- Messi has scored 50 goals already this season, Ronaldo 40 -- but the nagging doubt lingers. Yeah, they say, but against who?

The European Golden Shoe award rates goals according to the difficulty of the league in which they are scored. When each goal was calculated as one point, the top scorer in a minor league --- such as those in Scotland, Wales or Georgia -- took home the prize, prompting the format change. Now, every goal in England scores two points, for example -- and every goal in Spain does too. Score in a league outside the top five and it is worth 1.5. Now, some are daring to suggest that Spain's goals should not be worth two points each. Even some of those that do not go that far suggest that La Liga is an inferior league where it is too easy to score.

In England, former Everton striker and TV pundit Andy Gray famously asked if FC Barcelona's Leo Messi could replicate his feat on a cold, wet midweek night in Stoke. His question has been echoed and parodied to oblivion; endlessly repeated in both serious and ironic tones. It was, on one level, not as daft as it sounded: It raised a worthwhile point about different teams posing different challenges. In another way, however, it was also troubling: It was indicative of an especially narrow perspective from certain sections of the media.

A cold night in Stoke -- is that the barometer of a good player, the ultimate test? Why not a hot sunny afternoon in Seville? The comment revealed the assumption that England is the only truly difficult place to play, the home of the strongest teams and the toughest defenses. And not just any English team either, only the most "English" of English teams. Soccer was again reduced to power and aggression, strength and toughness. It was, in essence, about the British style being the best. The world's navel once again.

Could Barcelona perform on a cold night in Stoke? It is all well and good to dominate against Racing, Levante, Málaga or even Bayer Leverkusen, but could a Spanish team really go to the Britannia and win?

A team like Valencia could. In the last round of the Europa League, in fact, that was exactly what happened. But a 1-0 Valencia victory over Stoke did not do justice to the superiority of the Spaniards. It was not just that game, either. This has been a good year for the Spanish -- especially compared to the English -- and this, in particular has been a very, very good week; a week that has helped to shift perspectives a little, providing a timely and necessary correction.

Never mind that last season Real Madrid put four goals past Spurs, or that Barcelona put the same number past Arsenal the year before. It didn't matter that Barcelona faced, and dominated, Manchester United in two separate finals in a span of three years. It didn't register that Messi scored twice against Man U and four times in a single game against Arsenal, and it didn't matter that Spain was the reigning World Cup and European Champions. Suspicion remained.

Barcelona and Madrid were one thing, the rest of La Liga another. Messi and Ronaldo scored loads of goals because they were up against teams that, frankly, were not very good.

The evidence came in the huge gap between the big two and the rest in Spain.

There is an important element of truth in that: Spanish soccer is confronted by serious structural problems that exaggerate inequality and help make fair competition impossible. A tipping point has been reached in which other teams not only cannot compete but know that they cannot compete, making equal play even harder. As one of the players from the big two insists: while the difference is real, it has become an excuse behind which smaller teams can hide, undermining ambition and attitude.

There are also a number of Spanish teams in a terrible financial state and some of them in a desperate sporting state, too. Statistics from this week showed that Spanish clubs owe the Inland Revenue close to €800M between them. Winning margins are huge, often worryingly so. Madrid and Barcelona are setting records week after week and that is part of the reason for the inequality, and in some cases, the lack of quality.

But what should concern English clubs more than the huge difference between the big two and the rest in Spain. What's significant is the difference opening up between Madrid and Barcelona and them. Structural differences in Spain regarding TV money means that Barcelona and Madrid can earn around €120M a year in domestic rights. Manchester United earns half of that. Are Real Madrid and Barcelona are better than everyone else in Spain? Yes. But they may also well be better than everyone else in Europe. Their success is their success, not simply everyone else's failure.

The assumption that the other Spanish sides are not good enough is an arrogant one, an easy excuse into which some English commentators take comfort. It allows them to continue to sell English soccer as the best in the world, despite the achievements of Barça and Madrid. It prevents them from facing reality.

Gray once admitted in an interview that it was his job to "promote the Premier League". But isn't it also his job to commentate on soccer -- honestly and without prejudice?

Honesty dictates recognition of certain facts. Over the last five years, Barcelona has won two European Cups, Manchester United just one. And before that's dismissed as a reflection about clubs and not countries, in the last decade, three Spanish Clubs -- Valencia, Sevilla and Atlético -- have won the UEFA Cup/Europa League. No English club has.

This season has added to the sensation that the English league may be overrated and the Spanish one underrated. The Premier League is far better organized than the Spanish league, and generates more money, higher attendances and loftier TV figures. It can feel, subjectively, like there are more big games and fewer dead ones. But that does not necessarily translate into better teams. It also should not translate into a dismissal of Spanish clubs.

There could be no English teams left in the Champions League (depending on what happens to Chelsea). In the Europa League, Manchester United and Manchester City -- playing in the competition because of their exit from the Champions League -- must come from behind to progress. And they are the only English teams left. Athletic Bilbao, Valencia and Atlético Madrid, meanwhile, are still in position to progress. Last year Villarreal reached the semifinal -- further than any English club advanced.

On Thursday of last week, Athletic Bilbao went to Old Trafford, the glint in the players' eyes showing how excited they were. Their desire to swap shirts revealed the respect they maintained for United's players and English football in general. Then, for an hour and a half, they proceeded to tear United apart. It was not definitive proof, but it was a warning, a reminder that there are other teams beyond Spain's big two. In the end, Athletic totaled almost 70 percent of possession time and 25 shots, while the best United could muster was that it lost just 3-2. Athletic is the seventh best team in Spain. United is the top one in England.

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